The former CBS News anchor stops at GW to discuss his new book, “What Unites Us.”
By B. L. Wilson
It’s been 12 years since Dan Rather sat in the anchor’s chair at CBS Evening News, a position he held for 24 years, but he may be even more popular now. He boasts 25 million followers on the Facebook page, News and Guts, and his own personal Facebook page.
More than 1,200 baby boomers and millennials packed George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium Thursday to listen to Mr. Rather in a conversation with Jonathan Capehart, a member of The Washington Post editorial board and an MSNBC News contributor. The occasion, cohosted by the university and the bookstore, Politics & Prose, was on the release of Mr. Rather’s latest book, “What Unites Us.”
Mr. Rather said his newly found popularity is “humbling. I’m amazed by it, and I don’t understand it,” explaining that he started his Facebook page to give context and perspective to the news and put things into a historical context.
Perhaps, he mused “in the havoc of everyday events,” people are looking for a steady and reliable experienced voice. “Let’s face it, I’ve been around few years,” said the 86-year-old journalist.
Mr. Rather said the idea for the book, written with Elliot Kirschner, arose from reflections about patriotism following the 2016 presidential election as he looked back over his life and career as a reporter and anchor for CBS News for 44 years.
“I thought about all the change and uncertainties I had witnessed,” he said, “as a child during the Great Depression and World War II, seeing the fever of the red scare, the fight for civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11 and our current time in history… thinking about what it means to be an American in the second decade in the 21st century. What is patriotism in our time?”
He said many people confuse patriotism with nationalism. Patriotism is a deep love of country that is humbling, Mr. Rather said, while nationalism carries with it a certain amount of arrogance and conceit that can descend into extremes of nativism and tribalism.
That has never happened in the history of the United States, according to Mr. Rather, but he wanted to remind people of what historically follows when those extremes have taken hold in other countries.
“Extreme economic nationalism in the 1920s led to the great depression, and Aryan nationalism, racial nationalism led to Adolph Hitler,” he said, adding that he was not suggesting the United States is at that point.
Mr. Capehart noted that Mr. Rather had written that “the pendulum of our great nation seems to have swung towards conceit and unsteadiness.” He asked whether the recent election results in Virginia and New Jersey indicated a swing in the other direction.
“There’s an ebb and flow to American politics. Sometimes we lurch in one direction to the left, and certain times we lurch to the right,” Mr. Rather responded. “Inevitably in our history, that ebb and flow steadies itself in the broad middle.” He saw signs of that in the election results.
Jonathan Capehart (l), a member of The Washington Post editorial board, led the conversation with Dan Rather at Lisner Auditorium. (William Atkins/GW Today)
The key point he hoped people would take from the book, he said, is that “the general steadiness of the American people is one of our greatest strengths. Though the country is going through an anxious time, a perilous time, I am convinced we will get through it.,” Those words drew loud applause from the audience.
President Donald Trump’s name, he said, is not mentioned in the book because it is not intended as a screed against him. Then Mr. Rather offered that the most valid criticism of the president is the tone that he has brought to the office, singling out the “unconscionable” moral equivalence of the neo Nazis in Charlottesville to the people protesting against them, and the president’s attacks on the press.
Those things are unacceptable, Mr. Rather said.
“A truly free and independent, fiercely independent press is the red beating heart of democracy,” he said. “If we don’t have it, we don’t have the system of government we have now.”
During a Q & A session with audience members, a young woman who identified herself as a millennial asked what she could do to move the country forward. Mr. Rather answered that she should help one other person every day and make that a person of a different race, religion or ethnic background.
“This I’m convinced will help you as a person but also will serve as a contribution to our country,” Mr. Rather said. Then he suggested one other thing.
“The most powerful thing in a system such as ours is the ballot. To vote, to do everything you can to get everybody else to vote is the greatest contribution to your country and will be for the rest of your lives,” he said.